Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day, 2017: the choices of Midas and Solomon

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The egregiously bad judgment exhibited by King Midas is legendary.

Offered any gift he wanted by the god Dionysus, Midas chose riches. Specifically, he chose -- famously and foolishly -- to have anything he touched turn to gold. The results were, of course, devastating and life-destroying. 

He soon regretted his awful choice, and the gods were merciful to him and provided a way for his foolishness to be undone.

It would seem that no one could possibly be as foolish as Midas. His tale is practically laughable. Midas is a rather unsympathetic character, because we all smugly assume that we could never make choices that would be as stupid as the choices of King Midas.

However, looking soberly at the world in which we find ourselves on Earth Day 2017, we might want to think again before we complacently congratulate ourselves that our judgment, at least, is not so tragically foolish as that of the mythical king.

And, we should be very clear that the conditions we see in the world today are indeed a function of choices. There is a very well-known line of argument which declares that there simply is no possible alternative -- that things are the way they are today because the way we have structured the world is the only possible way that it will work. 

This line of argument, of course, is primarily advanced by those who benefit from the structures in place and who don't want to see them changed -- therefore, they argue that no change is even possible, and any alternative would either fail entirely or else be drastically worse than the current state of affairs. 

But, as the ancient myths tell us, King Midas had a choice. He chose stupidly, and his choice if left un-changed would have led to his own death by starvation or thirst (as everything he consumed turned to metal as it crossed his lips and entered his throat) and to the destruction of the next generations (as he famously turned his daughter into a lifeless golden statue). But he did have a choice. 

Other similar myths involving choices did not turn out so badly. For example, Solomon was similarly offered the granting of a single request, and chose wisdom -- specifically, wisdom in order to help the people, if you look closely at the actual text in the book of 1 Kings chapter 3. When he made that request, the text tells us that God was pleased, and specifically contrasted Solomon's choice with other possible choices, including riches or power over his enemies. Solomon in that ancient text chose rightly, in contrast to the bad judgment of King Midas.

There is an alternative -- but the world we have today has been shaped by choices of Midas-like bad judgment. 

Professor Claudia von Werlhof, of the University of Innsbruck, gave a presentation in 2005 which was later turned into an essay and published in 2008, and given the title in English: "Globalization and Neoliberal Policies: Are there Alternatives to Plundering the Earth, Making War and Destroying the Planet?" It was recently re-published on Global Research at the link given here.

In that article, Professor von Werlhof explains that neoliberalism -- a system with which we are all at least unconsciously familiar, since we are living in it, but about which we should all become much more familiar if we want to avoid the fate of King Midas -- was consciously implemented on a widespread scale in leading economies such as the United States, Great Britain, and (later) the European Union beginning in the 1980s, but that it had been carefully planned-for in advance and tested out in South American countries beginning with the violent US-backed coup in Chile in 1973. 

It's not that there was no alternative or no possible "other choice" -- but rather that neoliberalism was deliberately and systematically selected and implemented as a conscious choice by those hoping to benefit from its implementation.

Other professors have noted that the roots of what is known today as neoliberalism go back even further -- especially to economic thought that arose during the 1930s, as explained by Professor Linda Cooper from the University of Sydney in a recent interview on This is Hell! radio (an example of  the kind of independent media that has always been marginalized to some degree but that is now coming under increasing pressure, and that you may want to consider supporting if possible).

In Professor von Werlhof's essay, she explains that neoliberalism is based upon a deliberate decision to choose values such as:
self-interest and individualism; segregation of ethical principals and economic affairs, in other words: a process of 'de-bedding' economy from society; economic rationality as a mere cost-benefit calculation and profit maximization; competition as the essential driving force for growth and progress; specialization and the replacement of a subsistence economy with profit-oriented trade ('comparative cost advantage'); and the proscription of public (state) interference with market forces. [quoting her colleague Maria Mies -- see the extended list of works cited at the bottom of Professor von Werlhof's essay].
In his new book J is for Junk Economics (discussed in this previous post), Professor Michael Hudson  adds some additional insights to the definition of neoliberalism, defining it (in part) as:
An ideology to absolve banks, landlords and monopolists from accusations of predatory behavior. 
[ . .  . ] 
Turning the tables on classical political economy, rentier interests act as plaintiffs against public regulation and taxation of their economic rents in contrast to Adam Smith and other classical liberals, today's neoliberals want to deregulate monopoly income and free markets for rent seeking, as well as replacing progressive income taxation and taxes on land and banking with a value-added tax (VAT) on consumers.
Endorsing an oligarchic role of government to protect property and financial fortunes, neoliberalism loads the economy with an exponential growth of debt while depicting it in a way that avoids recognizing the rising rentier overhead (rent, interest and insurance) paid to the FIRE sector. Neoliberals want to privatize public infrastructure. They defend this granitization by depicting public ownership and regulation and less efficient than control by financial managers, despite their notorious short-termism. 167 - 168.
The result is a world of which King Midas (before his change of heart) might have been proud.

As Professor von Werlhof explains, the results of neoliberalism turn everyone and everything into commodities -- which is exactly what Midas (blinded by his lust for riches) was in the process of doing. She writes:
Today, everything on earth is turned into commodities, i.e. everything becomes an object of "trade" and commercialization (which truly means "liquidation": the transformation of all into liquid money). In its neoliberal stage it is not enough for capitalism to globally pursue less cost-intensive and preferably "wageless" commodity production. The objective is to transform everyone and everything into commodities (Wallerstein 1979), including life itself. We are racing blindly towards the violent and absolute conclusion of this "mode of production," namely total capitalization / liquidation by "monetization" (Genth 2006).
She cites numerous examples. Perhaps the most visually-powerful involve the privatization of water. "In Nicaragua," she notes, "there exist water privatization plans that include fines of up to ten months' salary if one was to hand a bucket of water to a thirsty neighbor who cannot afford her own water connection (Sudwind 2003)." And, equally awful to contemplate:
In India, whole rivers have been sold. Stories tell of women who came to the river banks with buffalos, children and their laundry, as they had done for generations, only to be called "water thieves" and chased away by the police. There are even plans to sell the "holy mother Ganges" (Shiva 2003).
This story is extremely telling -- because it shows how the use of force is inextricably connected to the implementation of neoliberalism (just as it was during its first big modern "test run" in Chile in 1973). Neoliberalism and the perpetual wars that are being waged by the most economically-developed countries on the planet (against people in the least-developed) are closely related, as Professor von Werlhof explains.

The reason violence is required for its implementation, beyond the obvious fact that it involves the taking of public resources for a smaller private group of beneficiaries, is that neoliberalism is inherently contrary to nature -- both to human nature and to Nature in general. In another visceral description, Professor von Werlhof describes its ultimate end, if left unchecked:
One thing remains generally overlooked: The abstract wealth created for accumulation implies the destruction of nature as concrete wealth. The result is a "hole in the ground" (Galtung), and next to it a garbage dump with used commodities, outdated machinery, and money without value.
Once again, however, we should remind ourselves that this outcome is not a necessary outcome. The path of Midas is a choice, and one that the ancient wisdom of the world tells us is a terrible choice and a choice to be avoided. The ancient myths provide an example of a different choice, in the choice of Solomon, who did not choose riches but rather wisdom in order to judge rightly and help the people. Midas did not judge rightly. He chose gold over life itself.

To undo his choice, Midas turned to the gods for mercy, and was granted the ability to un-do his decision. Professor von Werlhof explains that neoliberalism also involves making the wrong choices on very much the same moral level (choosing the wrong gods, so to speak). She writes that, 
We are not only witnessing perpetual praise of the market -- we are witnessing what can be described as "market fundamentalism." People believe in the market as if it was a god.
And, it is true that massive amounts of propaganda-like reinforcement are employed in developed countries such as the US to inculcate just such a quasi-religious "market fundamentalism" which declares that any alternative to neoliberalism as defined above is not only mistaken but actually morally pernicious.

Clearly, this is not merely an "economic" issue but in fact a spiritual one.

Later, Professor von Werlhof expands on the spiritual aspect of this question, saying:
We have to establish a new economy and a new technology; a new relationship with nature; a new relationship between men and women that will finally be defined by mutual respect; a new relationship between the generations that reaches even further than to the "seventh"; and a new political understanding based on egalitarianism and the acknowledgment of the dignity of each individual. But even once we have achieved all this, we will still need to establish an appropriate "spirituality" with regard to the earth (Werlhof 2007 c). The dominant religions cannot help us here. They have failed miserably.
I would argue that she is absolutely correct -- but that the ancient wisdom of the world as given in the myths and sacred traditions found in virtually every single culture on the planet, including the ancient cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, did not fail miserably: but they have in some cases been hijacked and turned on their heads.

We need to think very carefully about the choice of Midas, because not only have we demonstrated that we are not "above" making the same kind of foolish choices that he displays in the ancient myths -- and in fact, as Professor von Werlhof so eloquently demonstrates in her essay, we have made those very same choices and are rapidly in the process of turning the world into lifeless gold (or perhaps plastic).

The ancient myths, however, are not about fantastic actions made by kings or heroes in the distant past (as Alvin Boyd Kuhn explains, in a lecture cited many times on this blog). Solomon was not some external figure who was gifted with wisdom that we can never hope to access ourselves, and Midas was not some external figure who was filled with foolishness beyond any other human being. We ourselves are always capable of accessing the wisdom of the Infinite (like Solomon) or of foolishly ignoring the goodness of the gods (like Midas). 

And we are also capable, like Midas, of turning to the divine realm and saying we have made a very foolish choice, and asking for help in un-doing it.

Before the world ends up as one giant hole in the ground, and next to it a garbage dump.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).